I'm not tone deaf. Or at least I'm not tone deaf as I have long understood the phrase. I know some people who are tone deaf. I have heard them attempt to sing and have heard them land on all the wrong notes and even on some pitches that aren't notes. I generally don't do that. If you play something to me and ask me to sing or whistle or hum it back to you, I will do so correctly (provided it's within my range, of course).

But I've been sitting in on this introductory music course for a few months now, and I have to say, it's a good thing I'm not enrolled, because I have discovered that my listening skills are pitiful. I didn't realize how pitiful until just the last few days, when the professor has started to play pieces and the people around me, presumably with no more musical training than I have (ie, zero), have proven to be able to hear things I can't.

I don't have perfect pitch. Play me a note, and I have no idea what it is. Yet on some level I know what it is, because if you tell me to sing it back to you I can; I can even do so for several minutes thereafter. I haven't tested to see exactly how long it is before I forget them. Earlier today, I was listening to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, having learned that it begins G-G-G-E♭. For a while I could whistle G and E♭ accurately at will. Presumably if I were to listen to a scale I would be able to reproduce the whole thing, for a while. But not forever. A few moments ago I was about to say that I also could have figured out G by quickly running through the do-re-mi song till I got to sol, except I just tried it and I don't know where to start. Like, I know that do-re-mi starts with C, but I don't know what C sounds like.

But while I can't use do-re-mi to run through the C major scale, at least I would give you some sort of major scale — I don't forget relative pitch. To test this, I just sang the entire do-re-mi song into my chromatic tuner. It reported that I hit B♭, C, D, E♭, F, G, A, and B♭. That is indeed a major scale: B-flat major. I wonder to what extent I have actually trained myself to be unaware of absolute pitch: when I write a song, I initially play it so that I can sing the melody, but then when it's time to record it, I have to move the capo so that Bridget can sing it. The songs over on my music page are generally played about five frets higher than my own demo versions were. If I were wedded to the idea that "this song starts on E♭," I would probably freak out when I had to play it starting on A♭ instead. As it is, after a few moments I stop noticing. What I never stop noticing is whether I've played the wrong chord relative to the preceding chords, which makes me think that I'm not tone deaf...

...except then comes the revelation that even though I know when the intervals are wrong, I have no idea what the intervals are — yet other people do. For years I've read musicians talking about how such-and-such a note is a fourth higher than the preceding one, or how such-and-such a chord has a seventh in it, or whatever, and I've thought, great, maybe if I'd gone to Juilliard I'd be able to throw around those terms too. But then here's this class in which people learn what all these terms are for the first time, and then can hear two notes played and say, "Okay, so that's the fifth, then?" and be right. Buh. Give me a guitar and I can figure that out by trial and error. By listening? Not a chance.

Give me a note, wait for me to locate it on the guitar, and then tell me to go to the second note, and the result will be something like this. "Hmm, two frets up? No, still way too low. Six frets up? No, that's high. Five frets up? Yeah, that's the one!" That sounds bad enough, but just as often it'll be: "Hmm, three frets up? No, that's too high. Two frets up? Still too high. Two frets down? Oh, there it is!" Yeah. I can sing the two notes to you perfectly and still not always know whether the second one is higher or lower. And then there's this, which happens all the time. "So, it's a fret lower, right? Hmm, no. Two frets lower? No, that's worse. Two higher, then? No... oh, no, not again. Sigh." The sigh is because the notes are the same. Play me the same note twice, and I will occasionally hear the second one as a semitone lower, and in an exception to the rule that I can reproduce music accurately, I'll sometimes even play it that way — for the longest time I thought the riff to Nirvana's "School" was a 7-6-5, but in fact what I thought were a 7 and a 6 (which are, what... a B and an A♯, I guess) are actually the same string bend (a 5 up to a 7). Long notes I often hear as slides: a sequence I'd worked out as E sliding down to D♯ and then F♯ sliding down to E turned out to just be the whole notes E and F♯.

So while some students can now listen to a handful of notes and say, "Okay, that's the minor," I am hopeless at this. Lately I have found myself trying to get better at identifying keys by working out notes by trial and error, writing them down and figuring out the intervals. Oddly, in looking at one of the tunes I wrote for Zeta Space, I discovered that it actually featured eight pitches rather than seven: C♯, D♯, E, F♯, G♯, A, B... and then C before returning to C♯. Did I just have that note wrong, I wondered? But no, all eight notes were correctly represented. Then I happened across this in Wikipedia: "Minor scales are sometimes said to have a more interesting, possibly sadder sound than plain major scales. The minor mode, with its variable sixth and seventh degrees, offers nine notes, in C: C-D-E♭-F-G-A♭-A-B♭-B, over majors' seven, in C: C-D-E-F-G-A-B." I guess I should feel clever for having exploited this possibility, but instead I feel dumber for having had no inkling of the existence of the harmonic minor even as I was using it (simultaneously with the natural minor — I can't tell from the article whether that's the intended practice). It's weird, because all this makes me feel like a musical retard, and then I pick up my guitar and I can play the solos to songs I haven't practiced in twelve years. I have no idea what notes I'm hitting, but I do know that they're the right ones. I guess this means I have no musical talent but pretty good muscle memory.

I probably shouldn't even get into the fact that I can't tell timbres apart either. "Is that a violin? A horn? I'm pretty sure it's not a xylophone..."


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